How the Couch to 5K Running Plan Works

By: Meredith Bower
The purpose of the Couch to 5K Running Plan is to help couch potatoes drop the remote control and embrace running.

Let's say you've been doing a lot of sitting on the couch, and you're beginning to feel a little lumpy. The most exercise you've had is walking from the sofa to the fridge and clicking through television channels. Eventually, watching athletes at the top of their game on the sports networks inspires you to get in shape, so you lace up your shoes and go for a run. Minutes later, you have pains in your side, can't catch your breath and can barely make it around the block.

You could quit and go back to life as a couch potato, or you could follow the Couch to 5K Running Plan. The nine-week program enables you to transform your sedentary lifestyle into an active one where you can run for 30 minutes or 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). The plan's structure prevents new runners from giving up and at the same time challenges them to continue moving forward.


Josh Clark, a self-proclaimed, "reasonably fit 20-year-old," founded the Couch to 5K (C25K) Running Plan in 1996. Although he hated running at the time, he knew he would benefit if he could just get through the initial discomfort. Clark's strategy in developing the C25K was to make it as painless and user-friendly as possible in order to engage the new runner immediately. Best of all, anyone can use the C25K plan anywhere. The plan's manageable expectations offer early success, which serves as motivation to stick with it. When runners have mastered the nine-week program, many are content to stick with the 5K, while others move on to bigger challenges [source: Clark, No Pain]. 

No matter which path C25K graduates choose, after two months they can realize the mental and physical health benefits of running. Running not only burns more calories than other forms of exercise but also helps lower the risk of early death due to diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, running gives your mental health a boost, as exercise releases endorphins, the hormones that make you feel good [source: McDowell].

So is it possible to go from spud to stud in just two months? Keep reading to learn how the C25K plan works.


Couch to 5K Running Plan Schedule

Josh Clark designed the C25K Running Plan for inexperienced runners who are just beginning an exercise routine. While the objective isn't necessarily to run a 5K, having a race as a goal is a great way to stay on track. The plan has worked for many thousands of people because of the following features:

  • It starts off slow, but gets the couch potato running 3.1 miles (5K) or 30 minutes in nine weeks.
  • It starts with a gentle combination of walking and jogging and works up to all running.
  • Each workout takes only 20 to 30 minutes, three days a week.
  • It lets you measure your workouts by time if you don't have a way to measure distance.

Before beginning the C25K plan, experts recommend you have a checkup at your doctor's office. Then, lace up your running shoes (make sure they fit well) and hit the road. Plan to take a day off between each workout and give yourself two days to relax after the third workout each week.


Each workout begins with a brisk, five-minute warm-up walk, and stretching is recommended before and after each session. The workouts for the first two weeks last only 20 minutes and involve alternating walking and jogging for short periods of one to two minutes. The third week introduces the option of tracking progress by time or distance with manageable chunks of jogging and walking, and by the end of the week, runners feel a great sense of achievement.

During the fourth week of the program, runners see their mileage increase to 2 miles (3.22 kilometers) — just over 21 minutes — in each of the three weekly workouts. For most couch potatoes, the accomplishment of running 6 miles (9.66 kilometers) in a week provides motivation to stick with the plan.

The challenge of weeks five and six is to reduce dependency on walking. In fact, the third workout of these two weeks is exclusively jogging. Over this period, the distance advances from 1.25 miles (2 kilometers or 13 minutes) to 2.25 miles (3.62 kilometers or 25 minutes).

In the last three weeks, the C25K plan eliminates the walking segments altogether, and new runners find themselves building up their jaunts from 2.5 miles (about 4 kilometers or 25 minutes) in week seven to 3 miles (4.83 kilometers or 30 minutes) by the end of the ninth week [source: Clark, Couch to 5K].


Making the Most of the C25K

After a few weeks on the C25K Running Plan, you may notice how running relieves stress and improves your mood and confidence level.

Perhaps one of the main reasons people give up on a new exercise routine and return to the sofa is that they push themselves too hard, too soon. Their bodies rebel and they quit. The C25K plan understands the couch potato lifestyle and works to ease new runners past their initial discomfort and boredom to the point where they actually look forward to their workout.

To prevent dropouts, the plan discourages skipping ahead and encourages those who aren't ready to move on to repeat a week. The C25K plan works to keep new runners engaged so they can build strength and endurance. Once your muscles and bones become stronger and your stamina increases, you can work on speed.


While inexperienced runners shouldn't deviate from the C25K plan, you can help change your lifestyle and improve your overall health with a number of plan supplements:

  • Keep a running log to track your progress and motivate yourself to keep moving.
  • Remind yourself of the physical benefits of running, from fighting disease and reducing the risk of heart attack to raising good cholesterol and slowing the aging process.
  • Notice how running relieves stress and improves your mood and confidence level.
  • Focus on improving your nutrition by getting rid of unhealthy foods in your house and replacing them with healthy snacks.
  • Treat yourself to new, well-fitting shoes to reduce the risk of injury.
  • Set small, achievable goals.

People who successfully complete the C25K tend to continue running at the prescribed pace or ramp up their workout. Either option proves to former couch potatoes that they can accomplish seemingly impossible goals. If you can get in shape, boost your self-confidence and keep the motivation to get off the couch and move, who knows what you'll do next.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Burfoot, Amby. "Should You Be Running Barefoot?" Runner's World. Aug. 2004. (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • Cairns, Graham. "Couch to 5K Metric Version." (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Clark, Josh. "The Couch to 5K ® Running Plan." Cool Running. 2010. (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • Clark, Josh. "No Pain, No Pain: The 'Couch to 5K' and Humane Design." July 6, 2008. (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • McDowell, Dimity. "How to Start Running Today." Women's Health. 2010. (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • Kwok, Lucius and Kasten Searles. "Couch to 5K." Felt Tip, Inc. 2010. (Aug. 5, 2010)